Mad About the '60s ... Goldfinger at 50 and Bond Beyond

(Note: This is one in a series of occasional pieces in the run-up to the series finale of Mad Men with cultural relevance to the period of the show and today.)

Mr. Bond, all my life I have been in love. I have been in love with gold. I love its colour, its brilliance, its divine heaviness. I love the texture of gold, that soft sliminess that I have learnt to gauge so accurately by touch that I can estimate the fineness of a bar to within one carat. And I love the warm tang it exudes when I melt it down into a true golden syrup. But, above all, Mr. Bond, I love the power that gold alone gives to its owner - the magic of controlling energy, exacting labour, fulfilling one's every wish and whim and, when need be, purchasing bodies, minds, even souls. -- from Ian Fleming's Goldfinger

There is no more quintessential product of 1960s movie culture than the James Bond franchise, and Goldfinger is the film that shot the series into the stratosphere of global entertainment. It continues to be a juggernaut, of course, with the brilliant 50th anniversary film, 2012's Skyfall, bursting past the billion dollar box office barrier to establish Agent 007 as a cinematic icon on par with the top American superheroes and make its follow-up Spectre highly anticipated this November.

Spoilers about Goldfinger and Skyfall follow.

1962's Dr. No was awkward in spots but did an effective job in establishing the cinematic Bond, as well as a brand-new movie star in former Scottish bodybuilder and Royal Navy sailor Sean Connery, made over into the British gentleman spy by director Terence Young. 1963's From Russia With Love, this time accompanied by a classic full score from composer John Barry, took things several steps further in delivering a crackling Cold War spy story with some crunching action.

A trailer for Goldfinger.

Then Goldfinger upped the ante considerably, delivering the first real global action blockbuster. Notwithstanding the leisurely release pattern of the era.

Is Goldfinger a 1964 movie or a 1965 movie? That depends on your perspective. It was the first film I ever saw in a movie theater, just as soon as it came out in the quaint backwater known as San Francisco, in 1965. The film had its North American premiere in New York City just before Christmas 1964, but didn't make its way anywhere else in America till early '65. It came out in the UK the previous fall following its London premiere in September 1964.

Goldfinger made for quite an impression 50 years ago, with all the elements associated with cinematic Bond -- the elegantly steely lone wolf Brit, the wisecracks, cheeky double entendres, archly snobbish knowledge, slightly sadistic violence, hot women, glamour, brilliant if talky super-villain, nefarious henchmen, spectacular gadgets, world-shaking plot, jaw-dropping big-scale action, aspirational consumerism, and striking music. In the case of Goldfinger, the now Savile Row-clad superstar Connery, the outrageously named Pussy Galore, the murdered nude blonde covered in gold paint, the gold market-cornering Auric Goldfinger, the derby-throwing and karate-chopping Oddjob, the tricked-out Aston Martin (with an ejector seat!), and more, all of it propelled from the beginning by Shirley Bassey's torchy title song and and an especially swanky and jaunty John Barry score.

While parts, at least, of From Russia With Love could have been written by Ian Fleming's friend Raymond Chandler, with Bond functioning as a tough detective, in Goldfinger the character is more clearly the action hero. And everything is much more amped-up. He's not out to steal a coding machine and defeat a Russian honey trap (ironically featuring a dubbed recent Miss Italy as the beautiful Russian Tania), he's saving America's gold supply.

It's quite delirious stuff, and America and most of the rest of the world ate it up like chocolate ice cream.

Goldfinger, like the Bond blockbuster which followed it, Thunderball, was a big part of the buoyant quest for fun after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The British (cultural) Invasion, led in large part by the Beatles, who broke huge across America just a few months after Dallas, played a critical role in driving a post-assassination society on cultural amphetamines, its economy booming after JFK's stimulative policies.

Ironically, the slain JFK himself had much to do with the Bond phenomenon in the first place. He ranked From Russia With Love as one of his 10 favorite books of all time. (Not one of his 10 favorite spy stories, or 10 favorite novels, but 10 favorite books. The Bible wasn't on the list, which would be trouble for Kennedy today.)

In another irony, Fleming himself died just before Goldfinger hit movie screens. He was only 56, but had been a heavy smoker and drinker, and not much of an athlete. A Tory aristocrat, bored with the investment business, more engaged by journalism, Fleming was made by his World War II experience as a young naval intelligence officer. Actually, Commander Fleming and his boss, head of British naval intelligence, met with President Franklin Roosevelt and largely drafted the template for what became the spymaster President's main intelligence service under Wild Bill Donovan, the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS was the direct forerunner of the CIA.

Fleming created Bond in the early '50s as a way to deal culturally with a British Empire gone into sudden eclipse after the national exertions and losses and new energies let loose across the world following World War II. As a character, Bond is very much in the tradition of real life lone wolf British agents such as Christopher Marlowe, Daniel DeFoe, and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Unlike those examples, of course, Bond is not himself a literary sort. He's also something of a cultural antidote to the infamous Cambridge spy ring which raised Cold War questions about British moral fiber.

While the Bond of the Fleming novels and the Bond of the movies are in alignment on most points, Fleming's original conception wasn't as swanky and flashy as the character became in the hands of Connery and successor Roger Moore. The opening chapter of Goldfinger, for example, is entitled "Reflections in a Double Bourbon." Which makes the media furor over Daniel Craig's Bond drinking a beer in Skyfall -- and supposedly ditching his supposed only drink, the notorious shaken-but-not-stirred martini, which he does not do -- look all the more silly. The book Bond drinks all kinds of booze -- not to mention smoking about 80 cigarettes a day at times -- but hardly ever the supposed trademark martini.

The original Bond's heavy drinking and smoking are only two of the retro elements the decidedly politically incorrect character shares with Don Draper and the rest of the Mad Men crew.

A trailer for Skyfall, the 50th anniversary Bond film.

The Daniel Craig era, like that of the under-appreciated Pierce Brosnan before him, is, naturally, different. But as we saw in the very skillfully constructed Skyfall, not all those retro elements are needed to drive home the classic character.

Skyfall saw the sad end of the first female M, the great Oscar winner Judi Dench, her always flavorful portrayal brought so center stage that she nearly steals the picture from Craig's masterful Bond. Her casting as fictional head of MI6 back in the '90s was a brilliant move in modernizing Bond. And though Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes as the new M is in some ways a return to old form, Naomie Harris provides a decidedly new take on the Skyfall character who turns out in the end to be Moneypenny.

All of which stands to make Spectre, the next Bond picture in a franchise rocketed to the heights by Goldfinger, one of the top prospects in a 2015 chock full of famous genre franchises.

After a big year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers return in less than four months (with another new Marvel stablemate in Ant-Man later this year).

The return of Star Wars, with The Force Awakens, closes the out the year. In between, we get the conclusion of Hunger Games and new Mission: Impossible, Jurassic Park, and Terminator films.

Spectre is in some fast company. But with Skyfall director Sam Mendes returning for the film, which is being shot right now under the supervision of long-term Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, and two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (for Tarantino epics Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) on hand to play what may be a certain enigmatic villain, things may go very well again.

Perhaps even as well as Goldfinger, when adjusted for inflation. But it can't have the massive cultural impact that the '60s picture had.

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